Monday, June 30, 2008

Smelt nanban zuke

If that name looks familiar it's because it's one of the dishes I had at Shiro's while I in Seattle.
I liked it a lot when I had it there and it looked straightforward enough so I thought I'd try to make it at home. If you don't want to click through, basically we're talking about deep-fried pieces of smelt in a vinegary sauce topped with a garnish of onion and pepper. Luckily, my visit to Shiro's was a couple weeks back so I have no real recollection of how it tasted there. I wouldn't want to put my version up to a direct comparison.

I looked around a bit for a recipe right after I went to Shiro's and settled on this one I found at Chilies Down Under although I couldn't tell you why at this remove:
"Nanban Zuke

  • 2 tblsp light soy sauce
  • 1 small chilli (serrano, birds eye, etc) seeded and finely chopped
  • 2 tblsp sake
  • 700g mackerel fillets, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • cornflour
  • oil for frying


  • 0.5 cup rice vinegar
  • 0.5 cup sugar
  • 0.3 cup water
  • 1 teasp salt
  • 1 tablsp sake
  • 1 small chilli (serrano, birds eye, etc) seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 tablsp light soy sauce


  • 2 spring onions, finely chopped
  • 0.5 small green capsicum, cut into thin strips
  • 1 cayenne chilli seeded and finely slivered
  • a few slices frish ginger, cut into slivers

Combine the sake, light soy sauce and chilli in a bowl and marinade the mackerel in it in a fridge for around 20 minutes. Take out the fish and let it drain for a minute. Dust with cornflour and fry in the oil in a frying pan until golden brown.

Blend the sauce ingredients together, place the fish in a serving dish, and pour the sauce over the fish.

Pour boiling water over the spring onion, capsicum, and chilli, leave for 30 seconds, then drain. Sprinkle the spring onion, capsicum, chilli, and ginger over the fish."

The author calls it a "classic example of the Japanese style" but "nanban" translates as "southern barbarian" if you believe Wikipedia. This article (which is pretty interesting nanban aside) explains that this dish evolved from Spanish or Portuguese escabeche, another dish I need to get around to making at some point.

I made a few adjustments to bring this recipe more in line with Shiro's. First, instead of mackerel fillets, I used whole (well whole-ish, they'd been beheaded and gutted) smelt cut into bite-sized pieces. I was hoping to find fresh smelt somewhere as Florida is known for its smelt, but I only found frozen at Whole Foods so that's what I used. Where the recipe says "cornflour" I assumed it meant cornstarch not cornmeal. I used chili oil instead of fresh chili in the sauce to better distribute the flavor. And I substituted slivers of sweet onion for the chopped scallion. And finally, I made sure everything was deeply chilled instead of room temperature

Since I wasn't using fillets I probably should have lengthened the marination. Twenty minutes wasn't enough for more than a bit of heat to soak in. Wilting the onion probably wasn't necessary; I liked the crispness of the onions at Shiro's.

Shiro's served the dish alone, but I served it over rice. I made a last minute decision to sushify my rice (1 1/2 T rice vinegar, 1 T sugar and 1/2 T salt for each cup of uncooked rice. Rinse the rice well; sushi rice should stick together because of the additions not because of starch. You might add a piece of kombu to the rice cooker too if you're thinking that far ahead.) so I went light on the sauce to keep the dish from getting too vinegary. Overall, a pretty nice summer dish. Cool, light, tart and not too much time or trouble in the kitchen. A green salad with that Japanese style dressing and some hot sake would accompany it nicely.

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